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U.S. Military Shifting To Support Role In Libya

A sign declaring  "No foreign intervention, Libyan people can do it alone" stood outside the airport in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday.
Altaf Qadri
A sign declaring "No foreign intervention, Libyan people can do it alone" stood outside the airport in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday.

The U.S. military was pulling its warplanes from front-line missions and shifting to a support role in the Libyan conflict, as rebels took back much of an oil town that has repeatedly changed hands in weeks of battles with Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

Britain, France and other NATO allies will provide the fighter jets for intercept and ground-attack missions that enforce a no-fly zone over this North African country. And U.S. Air Force and Marine attack planes struck targets near the cities of Sirte and Brega.

A NATO official, who could not be named, said the U.S, would continue to play a major role in the operation, with one of the largest national contingents. Most U.S. planes will perform switch to support tasks, leaving offensive tasks to their NATO allies.

U.S. aircraft currently account for 90 of the 206 planes deployed by NATO in the Libyan conflict.

Britain Supplying Equipment To Rebels

Britain announced Monday that it will supply telecommunications equipment to Libya's opposition forces — but said it is not providing weapons.

Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament that Britain had responded to a request for telecommunications equipment from rebel leaders in Libya following a new round of meetings in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. He refused to disclose the exact details of the equipment Britain is supplying, but insisted it was not designed to help with the international missile strikes, or to guide weapons used by the rebels.

Hague said coalition airstrikes are successfully destroying Gadhafi's key military assets such as tanks and artillery, yet Gadhafi's forces continue to inflict considerable damage on the civilian population.

Like the U.S., Britain has suggested it could also supply weapons to rebel forces in some circumstances, despite a U.N. arms embargo covering Libya.

Hague also told the House of Commons that the U.N. and the European Union may consider dropping sanctions against some members of Gadhafi's regime if they abandon their support for the Libyan dictator. It was unclear if the offer could extend to Gadhafi's family, many of whom face sanctions.

Hague said the EU would open talks this week on lifting restrictions imposed on Moussa Koussa, the former Libyan foreign minister, who fled Tripoli and arrived in Britain on Wednesday. He confirmed that U.K. officials have encouraged Koussa to answer questions from Scottish police and prosecutors over the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing.

It wasn't immediately clear what restrictions on Koussa could be lifted. He is still being questioned by British intelligence and government officials but the U.N. and the 27-member EU bloc have imposed restrictions including asset freezes and visa bans against individuals tied to Gadhafi's regime.

But the Obama administration lifted financial and travel sanctions against Koussa. The Treasury Department said it's dropped him from a blacklist of Libyan officials.

Hague said no member of Gadhafi's inner circle would be offered immunity from prosecution for past crimes.

Opposition Retakes Parts Of Key Oil Port

Rebels pushed into eastern sections of the strategic oil port of Brega on Monday amid bursts of artillery and shelling from Gadhafi's forces west of the town. Women and children were seen fleeing Brega as the battle raged.

"New Brega is under control of our forces and we are mopping up around the university," Lt. Muftah Omar Hamza, a former member of Libya's air force who had a satellite phone and a GPS around his neck, told The Associated Press.

Brega stretches out over several miles of the coast and is concentrated in three main sections: New Brega, a largely residential area on the east end; West Brega, which includes a refinery and housing for oil workers; and a university between them. West Brega was still contested.

Rebel forces made up of defected army units and armed civilians have seized much of Libya's eastern coast, but have been unable to push westward toward the capital, Tripoli. Two rebel advances on Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold on the road to Tripoli, were cut well short, and government forces pushed the opposition back 100 miles or more after each attempt. Rebels were hoping for more this time.

"We're advancing. By today we'll have full control of Brega," said Salam Idrisi, 42, a rebel fighter. "We're more organized now, and that's played a big role."

Italy Recognizes Rebel Government

Italy became the third country to extend diplomatic recognition of the rebel-led National Transitional Council as the legitimate voice of Libya, joining the governments of France and Qatar.

After speaking with the council's foreign envoy, Ali al-Essawi, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that Gadhafi and his sons must leave Libya before conflict in the North African nation can be resolved.

"They are leaders of the military operations against Libyans," Al-Essawi said, explaining why the council refuses to accept one of Gadhafi's sons as Libya's leader.

Iman Bugaghis of the provisional government in Benghazi told NPR that any talks with Gadhafi's sons about a transition and exile for Gadhafi was totally unacceptable.

"They [his sons] show that they have the same ugly face as their father," Bugaghis said. "So I think nobody can argue with us about this. It shows that that this regime will not last forever. He is losing the support of his own sons."

Frattini also said proposals by a Libyan government envoy Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, who met with Greek officials Sunday, were "not credible" because nothing was said about Gadhafi's departure.

Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said that based on al-Obeidi's comments, "it appears that the regime is seeking a solution," but few other details of the Athens talks were released publicly. Al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister, arrived Monday in Turkey for talks with senior officials, Turkey's Anatolia news agency said, and he plans to also travel to Malta.

Gadhafi's government has declared several cease-fires but has not abided by them, and the council said it will not negotiate with him or settle for less than his ouster.

NPR's Eric Westervelt in Benghazi, Philip Reeves in London and freelancer Linda Frattini contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff and Wires